Now that the NFL draft has come and gone, the tentpole events of the offseason are over, and we can start to peek ahead. Will teams still make roster tweaks in the months ahead? Might we get a surprise signing or two? Sure. But for the most part, we know what all 32 teams will be working with when Week 1 rolls around in September.
So, what have we learned about each team? Today, we go team by team in the AFC to answer that question, and in the next installment, we’ll go over the NFC. For an assist on matters dealing with contracts and the salary cap, we called on Jason Fitzgerald from Over the Cap. All of the contract data below is from his site, and statistics are from TruMedia and Pro Football Focus.
They avoided disaster with Lamar Jackson.
As recently as mid-April, the possibility of Lamar Jackson digging his heels in and sitting out regular-season games was in play. Now, he’s got a reported five-year, $260 million contract in hand.
Jackson didn’t get the fully guaranteed Deshaun Watson–type deal that he was rumored to be seeking, but he did secure the richest contract in NFL history based on average annual value ($52 million). He got $135 million fully guaranteed (second behind only Watson), a $72.5 million signing bonus (the biggest in NFL history), and, notably, a no-trade clause and a no-tag clause. For all of the hand-wringing about Jackson not having an agent, he ended up doing well for himself in these negotiations.
“I don’t think it really hurt him at all,” Fitzgerald said. “He pretty much set every high-end metric that there would be with that deal.”
The Ravens, who never seemed willing to match the deal the Browns gave Watson, played it well too, using the nonexclusive franchise tag as leverage. If another team signed Jackson to an offer sheet, the Ravens would have had the opportunity to match. But it became clear that the owners viewed the structure of the Watson deal as a one-off, not a precedent-setter, and Jackson didn’t have other serious suitors.
The Ravens’ new wide receiver group—veteran free agent addition Odell Beckham Jr., 2021 first-rounder Rashod Bateman, and 2023 first-rounder Zay Flowers—comes with both question marks and upside. Beckham is 30 and was out last year while he recovered from an ACL injury. Bateman missed 11 games in 2022. And Flowers is a rookie. But throw in tight end Mark Andrews, running back J.K. Dobbins, and a strong offensive line, and this could be the best supporting cast Jackson’s ever had. The biggest change for Jackson and the offense will be going from offensive coordinator Greg Roman to Todd Monken, whose job will be to breathe more life into the passing game.
The Ravens win games when Jackson plays. They are 45-16 in the regular season with him as the starter. Over the past three years, according to expected points added per play, the Ravens have had the sixth-best offense with Jackson and the 31st-ranked offense without him. The Ravens haven’t had playoff success with Jackson, and he’s missed 11 games over the past two seasons due to injury or illness, including Baltimore’s wild-card loss to the Bengals in January. But considering how rocky the start of this offseason was, things finally feel settled in Baltimore.
They got back to doing Bills things.
The following two statements are both true:
- The Bills didn’t get significantly better this offseason.
- The Bills are on the short list of Super Bowl contenders.
Buffalo made a splashy (and somewhat out-of-character) move last offseason, signing edge defender Von Miller to a monster deal that included $45 million guaranteed. This offseason was more about the Bills doing what they usually do—trying to find an advantage on the margins with less notable additions like guard Connor McGovern, running back Damien Harris, and safety Taylor Rapp.
The Bills’ 2022 season felt unsatisfying after they went out with a whimper in a divisional-round loss to the Bengals, but they were still a very good team. Buffalo’s plus-169 point differential in the regular season was the top in the AFC, and until the playoff loss, the Bills hadn’t suffered a defeat by more than three points.
Offensively, the Bills finished second in DVOA last year, and they’ve been in the top 10 for three consecutive seasons, but they could use better line play and someone other than Stefon Diggs to threaten defenses. They traded up for tight end Dalton Kincaid in the first round, but expectations for Kincaid in the first year should be tempered. Tight ends selected in the first round over the past 10 years have produced 37.7 catches for 483.4 yards and 2.9 touchdowns on average as rookies. In other words, Kincaid can be a contributor, but history suggests he’s unlikely to become a true difference-maker immediately.
Defensively, getting better injury luck could go a long way. The Bills ranked 31st in adjusted games lost on defense in 2022.
The Bills were a trendy Super Bowl pick last year and seem to be a little more under the radar this offseason. They need some of their smaller bets to pay off, but they are again among the teams capable of making a championship run.
The Joe Burrow extension is still on their to-do list.
The timeline of this offseason’s quarterback deals started when Jalen Hurts signed his deal with Philadelphia, which helped provide the framework for Jackson’s deal in Baltimore. Next up are Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow and the Chargers’ Justin Herbert.
“I don’t know if Cincinnati might push for something more along the lines of the [Patrick] Mahomes deal, where you’re looking at a 10-year deal,” Fitzgerald said. “I could see that being a consideration.”
Fitzgerald pointed out that the Bengals typically don’t offer the same guarantee structure as other teams, but with high-level quarterbacks like Burrow who are in their mid-20s, guaranteed money can be overrated. Most of those players end up seeing every cent from the deals they sign anyway—or they get a chance to negotiate an even larger extension along the way.
“It’s not as big of a deal because the cycle on those players is much longer,” Fitzgerald said. “The quarterbacks play until their mid-30s if they’re good, so you don’t really care as much on the guarantee structure for the quarterback position.”
Burrow said last offseason that the Bengals’ Super Bowl window is open as long as he’s the quarterback, and he’s right. Cincinnati has been one of the final four teams standing in each of the past two seasons and has a great shot to contend for a championship again in 2023. They finished last season third in offensive DVOA and made one of my favorite offseason moves, upgrading at left tackle with Orlando Brown Jr.
The Bengals have used six top-100 picks on defense in the past two drafts. They lost safeties Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell in free agency and will count on young players to step up in the secondary.
The Bengals can be explosive in the passing game. They can run the ball efficiently (second in rushing DVOA last season). And with defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, they can come up with creative, one-off game plans against top-level quarterbacks—a critical skill in the loaded AFC. Add it all up, and you have a nice formula for a team that should once again make a deep playoff run.
The pressure is about to get ratcheted up.
Last offseason, the Browns gave up three first-round picks, a third-round pick, and two fourth-round picks for Deshaun Watson. They were also willing to go where no other team has gone before by fully guaranteeing his $230 million deal.
Watson served an 11-game suspension and started the team’s final six games. Among 41 quarterbacks with at least 150 dropbacks, Watson ranked 40th in EPA per pass play, ahead of only Arizona backup Colt McCoy. Even Watson’s best game ranked in roughly the 60th percentile of all league-wide starts. In other words, he didn’t even have peaks and valleys. The highs were underwhelming, and four of his six starts were below average by league standards.
Having said that, those six games represent a relatively small sample, and Watson hadn’t seen action since the 2020 season. In 2019 and 2020, 38 quarterbacks had at least 400 dropbacks. Among that sample, Watson was seventh in EPA per pass play. If Watson can get back to being the player he was in Houston, the Browns have a chance to make a major leap. Offensively, their top offseason addition was wide receiver Elijah Moore. Defensively, they replaced coordinator Joe Woods with Jim Schwartz and added veterans like defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson and safety Juan Thornhill. The Browns had limited resources in both free agency and the draft, but the pieces are in place for a playoff berth, although it’s a crowded field in the AFC.
When the Browns made the trade for Watson, he immediately became the most powerful person in the organization, aside from owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam. Given what they gave up to acquire him and how much money they have committed to him through 2026, if Watson doesn’t play well in 2023 or if the Browns don’t make the playoffs, the trade will look like an outright disaster and could lead to major organizational changes.
Sean Payton and Russell Wilson might not last long together.
This Broncos season could go one of two ways. One possibility is that Sean Payton could resurrect Wilson’s career, and Denver could have a nice bounce-back. The talent on the roster is better this year than it was in 2022. They spent big (but perhaps unwisely) in free agency on players like right tackle Mike McGlinchey, guard Ben Powers, and defensive lineman Zach Allen. The Broncos had the worst injury luck in the NFL last season. Just being a little healthier will go a long way. And Payton will obviously be a huge upgrade over Nathaniel Hackett. Add it all up, and it would be no surprise to see them land a wild-card spot.
But there’s another side to consider—a much, much darker side. Wilson was terrible last year. He finished 25th out of 33 starters in EPA per pass play. But Payton wasn’t hired to fix Wilson. He was hired to build a winning program. Don’t forget that one of his first moves in free agency was to sign quarterback Jarrett Stidham to a two-year, $10 million deal. If Payton doesn’t like what he’s seeing from Wilson, he could move on after this year. Releasing Wilson after 2023 would result in the biggest dead cap hit in NFL history, but the alternative would be guaranteeing more of his contract in future years. Fitzgerald noted that the Broncos could move on from Wilson for a roughly $35 million dead cap hit in 2023 and close to a $50 million dead cap hit in 2024.
“The alternative is even worse,” he said. “If you don’t want him to be your quarterback, you’re just gonna be paying him more and more. So it’s almost like, ‘Well, just take your pain, and get it out of the way right now.’”
Fitzgerald brought up the possibility of the Broncos making a decision on Wilson during the season. Part of Wilson’s contract is guaranteed for injury only. If he’s not playing well through 10 weeks or so and the Broncos are out of the playoff hunt, they could decide they don’t want to risk Wilson getting injured and having those guarantees kick in. They could opt to bench him and protect themselves financially, especially if Payton wants to get a look at Stidham anyway.
One way or another, the Broncos will be one of the NFL’s most interesting teams in 2023.
Their short-term gamble could really haunt them.
The Texans drafted quarterback C.J. Stroud no. 2 in last month’s draft. I have no issues with that decision. When you’re drafting as high as Houston was and you like a quarterback, you take the swing. Maybe it works out. Maybe it doesn’t. But it’s a perfectly justifiable move.
What the Texans did next was reckless. They moved up from no. 12 to no. 3 to take Alabama edge defender Will Anderson Jr. They gave up the 12th pick, the 33rd pick (second round), a 2024 first, and a 2024 third. Anderson is a great prospect, and I hope he has a great career. But this screams “terrible process” for a number of reasons.
For one, the Texans are not one edge rusher away from contending for a playoff spot in the AFC. Their roster stinks. They need to be taking a lot of swings to try to upgrade multiple positions. If you’re a Texans fan, would you rather have Houston come out of the draft with Oregon cornerback Christian Gonzalez, Notre Dame tight end Michael Mayer, a 2024 first, and a 2024 third or Anderson? The answer seems obvious.
Most importantly, the Texans gave up what could be an incredibly valuable asset: their 2024 first-round pick. Houston’s over/under win total for 2023 is 6.5—tied for the second lowest in the NFL. Next year’s draft has huge quarterback star power in USC’s Caleb Williams and North Carolina’s Drake Maye. Let’s say the Texans like what they see from Stroud during his rookie season. They could have been positioned to trade their premium 2024 pick for a king’s ransom. Let’s say Stroud has a terrible rookie season and isn’t what the Texans were expecting. They could have been positioned to draft more of a sure thing next year.
Instead, they gave that asset and that optionality away. The Texans broke the no. 1 rule of the offseason: Don’t fall in love. DeMeco Ryans seems like a great hire as the team’s new head coach, but let’s not forget that the Texans have been one of the NFL’s most incompetent franchises for years. Maybe I’ll get the Freezing Cold Takes treatment for this prediction down the line, but I really feel like the most likely scenario is them regretting that trade in a big way.
They finally have a plan at QB.
The Colts were one of the most unpredictable teams going into the draft because owner Jim Irsay’s actions over the past year suggested that he was capable of just about anything. But the first round seemed to work out perfectly for the Colts as Florida’s Anthony Richardson stayed on the board for them at no. 4, and they landed their quarterback of the future without having to trade any draft capital.
After going from Andrew Luck to Jacoby Brissett to Philip Rivers to Carson Wentz to Matt Ryan to Sam Ehlinger to Nick Foles, the Colts finally have a plan. Richardson is green; he will be a 21-year-old rookie, and he started just 13 games in college, completing 53.8 percent of his passes last year. But watch his 25 best plays, and you’ll be convinced that he’s destined for stardom. Now, it’s up to the Colts to develop him.
I don’t know if Shane Steichen will be a great head coach, but he has experience implementing an offense that features the quarterback run game from his time in Philadelphia with Jalen Hurts. Between Richardson and running back Jonathan Taylor, the Colts can lean on their run game and keep the passing game simple at first to ease Richardson in, given his lack of playing experience.
The Colts probably won’t be a good team in 2023, but if you’re a fan, you just want to see flashes of promise from Richardson and more organizational stability from the franchise. For the first time since Luck retired, it seems like the Colts actually have a long-term plan.
Their biggest move was made in the fall.
General manager Trent Baalke went wild in free agency last offseason, spending nearly $260 million in the first two days alone. For one year at least, the moves worked out. With Doug Pederson and Trevor Lawrence leading the way, the Jaguars had their first winning season in five years and advanced to the divisional round. Now, it’s about building on 2022’s success.
Lawrence finished last season sixth in EPA per pass play. Now, he’ll have another dynamic pass catcher to throw to. In November, the Jaguars traded for wide receiver Calvin Ridley. Ridley was suspended in 2022 but will now join a group of pass catchers that includes Christian Kirk, Zay Jones, and Evan Engram.
The Jaguars ranked ninth in offensive DVOA last year, and the Ridley addition should make the offense more dangerous. They are the clear favorites to win the AFC South.
Kansas City Chiefs
They’ve earned the benefit of the doubt with their roster moves.
The Chiefs’ success has been because of their offense—so much so that in the offseason, their leading wide receiver (JuJu Smith-Schuster) and both starting tackles (Orlando Brown Jr. and Andrew Wylie) from their Super Bowl championship team left in free agency, and no one seems to care. There’s a reason Patrick Mahomes is Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid is Andy Reid. That quarterback-coach pairing alone will usually be enough to make up for other deficiencies on the roster.
Kansas City is taking a “We’ll figure it out” approach on the offensive line. The Chiefs gave right tackle Jawaan Taylor a four-year, $80 million deal in free agency and could ask him to move to the left side. They also signed veteran left tackle Donovan Smith to a one-year deal. They could call on third-year player Lucas Niang to start. Or the Chiefs could throw third-round pick Wanya Morris into the mix.
If this were another team, it’d be fair to question the O-line shuffle. But with the Chiefs, you just trust that their dart throws will work out.
At wide receiver, the projected starters are Kadarius Toney, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, and Skyy Moore. It’s not the most reliable group, but tight end Travis Kelce will continue to be their top option in the passing game, and Mahomes will make the other receivers look good.
Bottom line: With Mahomes and Reid, the Chiefs will almost certainly produce a top-five offense. And the defending champs are once again the team to beat.
Las Vegas Raiders
They appear to be treading water in 2023.
Nothing the Raiders did this offseason was egregious, but it’s hard to figure out what their vision is in the second year of the Josh McDaniels era. At quarterback, they swapped out Derek Carr for Jimmy Garoppolo. Carr looked bad at times last year, but he was far from a disaster. Statistically, he ranked 11th in EPA per pass play.
Will Garoppolo really be a significant upgrade? He’ll have a strong group of pass catchers, led by 2023 All-Pro Davante Adams, to work with, but the Raiders have offensive line questions, and McDaniels is not Kyle Shanahan in terms of offensive scheming. Garoppolo has started more than 10 games just twice in his nine-year career. Behind him on the depth chart are Brian Hoyer and rookie fourth-round pick Aidan O’Connell.
Meanwhile, the Raiders finished 31st in defensive DVOA last year and have one of the worst starting cornerback groups in the NFL.
The Raiders have the fourth-hardest projected schedule in 2023. Their over/under win total on FanDuel is 6.5—tied for the second lowest. The Raiders finished 6-11 last year, and McDaniels is now 17-28 as a head coach. There’s little reason to believe this team will show much improvement.
Los Angeles Chargers
They’re running out of excuses.
Justin Herbert’s talent is undeniable, but the Chargers have yet to win a playoff game in three seasons with him as the starter. The end of last year was a complete disaster. Head coach Brandon Staley played his starters in a meaningless Week 18 game, and wide receiver Mike Williams suffered an injury that kept him out of the playoffs. The Chargers then blew a 27-0 lead in the wild-card round against the Jaguars.
When stuff like that happens, you know that someone will get the blame. For the Chargers, it was offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi. Staley replaced him with Kellen Moore, and that move could work out well. Moore was the Cowboys’ offensive coordinator from 2019 to 2022. During that span, if we look at games where Dak Prescott was the quarterback, the Cowboys performed like the second-best offense in the NFL. Simply put: Moore knows how to coordinate high-level offenses.
And in Los Angeles, Moore will have plenty to work with. The Chargers used a first-round pick on wide receiver Quentin Johnston, and they should have a top-10 offensive line as star left tackle Rashawn Slater returns from the biceps injury that kept him out of most of last season. There’s a scenario where the Chargers finally have the breakout season many have been waiting for.
But if that doesn’t happen in 2023, it almost certainly will mean bigger changes than simply swapping out a coordinator. At some point in the months ahead, Herbert (if he signs his next contract after Burrow does) will likely become the highest-paid player in NFL history. To not make a playoff run in his first four years would represent an organizational failure.
They remain locked in with Tua Tagovailoa.
Since the start of last offseason, the Dolphins have traded for wide receiver Tyreek Hill, edge defender Bradley Chubb, and cornerback Jalen Ramsey. They’ve also hired veteran defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. These are the moves of a franchise that believes it can win right now.
Miami could’ve explored options at quarterback other than Tua Tagovailoa (another run at Tom Brady? South Florida native Lamar Jackson?) but chose not to. Instead, the Dolphins reaffirmed their commitment to Tagovailoa, picking up his fifth-year option nearly two months before the deadline. Tagovailoa is now guaranteed $23.2 million in 2024. He had multiple concussions last year and even admitted that he considered retiring this offseason.
“I thought that was a mistake,” Fitzgerald said of the Dolphins’ decision to pick up Tagovailoa’s option. “I thought that they almost got publicly pressured into it.
“Part of it might be a little bit of an overreaction to what happened with the Giants and Daniel Jones. That’s the classic case where you turn down the option, he has a good enough year to end up with an extension, and you end up costing yourself money in the long run with that. But I would say Jones is probably the exception more than the rule. If I was Miami, I think I probably would’ve turned the option down.”
There’s no doubt that the Dolphins’ offense worked last year when Tagovailoa was on the field. If we look at their EPA per play with Tagovailoa, it would have translated to the second-best offense in the NFL over the course of the entire season, which would have placed them behind only the Chiefs. But Tagovailoa missed four games last season (and also missed four because of injury in 2021).
The Dolphins now have the look of a high-variance team. They have offensive firepower, defensive talent, and a proven defensive coordinator in Fangio. But they also have the fifth-hardest projected schedule, and if Tagovailoa suffers a concussion or another injury, their season—and their future—could completely fall apart.
New England Patriots
Bill Belichick (again) relied on familiarity.
Bill Belichick’s decision to hand the offense over to Matt Patricia last year completely backfired. Mac Jones regressed, the team consistently made mental mistakes, and the offense was a complete disaster. Belichick had a chance for a redo this offseason. And what was his move? He hired Bill O’Brien.
Think about that. If you’re Belichick, you basically have your pick of any available offensive football coach in the world. Every single potential candidate will return your call. You can search far and wide for an innovative mind who can really make an impact. But instead of earnestly looking for the best candidate, Belichick hired someone he’d worked with in the past.
Will O’Brien bring more competency than Patricia? Sure. Will O’Brien really give the Patriots an edge? Unlikely. O’Brien coached six full seasons with the Texans from 2014 to 2019. Here’s where Houston finished in offensive DVOA during that time.
Houston’s Offensive DVOA Under Bill O’Brien
|Year||Offensive DVOA Ranking|
|Year||Offensive DVOA Ranking|
In six years, he did not produce a single above-average offense. And two of those years were with a healthy Deshaun Watson at quarterback.
From a personnel standpoint, the Patriots added JuJu Smith-Schuster and tight end Mike Gesicki on offense. They had a nice draft, trading down in the first round before snagging Oregon cornerback Christian Gonzalez.
But overall, it’s hard to look at the Patriots’ offseason and think they’ve closed the gap on the contenders in their own division, let alone the conference. Plus, they have the hardest projected schedule in the NFL.
It’s obvious that owner Robert Kraft is displeased with how things have gone during the post-Brady era. Belichick is 25-25 with no playoff wins in the past three years. The 2023 Patriots have the look of a mediocre team that could be in the mix for a wild-card berth if things fall their way. But it’s hard to see a high ceiling with this group.
New York Jets
They raised their floor and ceiling for 2023.
If you want to roast your Jets friends, you have plenty of material. They hired Nathaniel Hackett as their offensive coordinator and signed wide receivers Allen Lazard and Randall Cobb in an effort to appease Aaron Rodgers. The deal they made with the Packers to acquire Rodgers gives them no protection in the event that Rodgers, who will turn 40 in December, wants to stop playing football after this season (even though he said he is not planning to be one-and-done). Here’s a list of quarterbacks in the past 20 years who have started at least 10 games at age 40 or older: Vinny Testaverde, Brett Favre, Drew Brees, and Tom Brady. That’s it!
Now, if you’re a Jets fan who is excited about the move, that’s reasonable too. The team has missed the playoffs 12 consecutive seasons and has finished in last place in the AFC East seven times during that span. Could Rodgers show a significant decline? Sure. That’s always a possibility at his age. But history suggests that the floor of the Jets offense should be relatively high. Rodgers has had 13 seasons in which he’s started at least 10 games. The Packers offenses in those seasons never finished worse than 11th in DVOA. Do you know the last time a Jets offense finished 11th or better in DVOA? It was 2004! If you’re a teenage Jets fan, there’s a pretty good chance you’re about to watch the best offense of your lifetime.
The Jets need to get their tackle situation figured out, but the interior of the offensive line should be good, and they have a high-upside no. 1 wide receiver in Garrett Wilson, along with capable complementary receivers. The defense finished fifth in DVOA last season.
Bottom line for Jets fans: It’s reasonable to talk yourselves into this being a fun, promising season. For Jets haters, it’s reasonable to talk yourselves into this being a complete disaster.
They had a quietly underrated offseason.
The Steelers’ offseason focus was clearly on upgrading their offensive line. They moved up in the first round to draft left tackle Broderick Jones, and they signed guard Isaac Seumalo to a reasonable deal in free agency. Pittsburgh is deeper up front than it has been in a while. Diontae Johnson and George Pickens are fine options at wide receiver, and we’ll see whether Allen Robinson II has anything left as a third option.
With an upgraded supporting cast, what kind of leap can Kenny Pickett make? In the past 10 years, there have been 35 quarterbacks who have had at least 200 dropbacks as rookies. Among that group, Pickett’s rookie season ranks 16th. He produced the same EPA per pass play as Joe Burrow and was better statistically than Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson were as rookies (keep in mind, this metric doesn’t include QB runs). That’s a pretty promising start for Pickett.
Defensively, the Steelers should have a formidable pass rush. In the secondary, they’re hoping that cornerback Patrick Peterson still has something left or that Joey Porter Jr. can step in and play well as a rookie.
Mike Tomlin avoided a losing record for the 16th straight season in 2022, and the Steelers roster got better this offseason. They might not have a high ceiling, but this looks like a competitive group that should be in the mix for a playoff spot.
They’re taking another swing on a young QB.
Last year, the Titans took a flier on Malik Willis in the third round. That might not work out for them (it’s not a great sign that Mike Vrabel opted to play Joshua Dobbs over Willis in a win-and-in Week 18 game!). This year, Tennessee traded up to draft Will Levis early in the second round. That might not work out either. But you know what? I like the approach. Finding a quarterback is hard. Some teams overpay for competency via the trade market or free agency. Others just kick the can down the road every year. But the Titans are finding a nice middle ground. They’re taking swings but aren’t going overboard with the resources they’re spending. They’re hoping to eventually find someone who can develop into a quality starter and become the long-term replacement for Ryan Tannehill, who will be 35 this season.
The Titans were 7-10 last year. That was with Dobbs and Willis combining to start five games. Overall, they were the third-most injured team in the NFL.
In 2023, they’ll go back to Tannehill and Derrick Henry and hope that the offensive line can be better. The Titans’ wide receiver depth chart might be the thinnest in the NFL. Defensively, Tennessee added pieces like linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair, pass rusher Arden Key, and corner Sean Murphy-Bunting.
It’s an imperfect roster, but no one should be surprised if Vrabel’s team ends up being frisky. There’s no quick fix for the Titans, but the moves they made this offseason were mostly reasonable.